Two of America’s most esteemed encyclopedic art museums are looking to raise the cost of admission: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is asking the city of Philadelphia for permission to raise admission fees an unannounced amount. And yesterday the Art Institute of Chicago received city permission to raise the cost of admission 50 percent, to $18. The AIC is also raising admissions for students and seniors by 71 percent.
Just as young people, the middle-class and the less fortunate can least afford access to the great collections in Philadelphia and Chicago, their museums are making it harder for people to visit.
For the museums it comes down to simple math: Endowments are down, government grants are down and private donors and foundations apparently aren’t inclined to give enough to prevent admissions hikes. Museums are facing a tough decision: Cut (even more) staff, or raise admissions costs. Philadelphia and Chicago are (in part) choosing to maintain staff and other infrastructure instead of maintaining public access at current price levels.
The problem with looking to admissions costs as the place to make up revenue is this: Admissions are not substantial contributors to most museums’ bottom lines. At the Philly Museum, for example, admissions made up just 3.2 percent of program-related expenditures in FY 2006.
At Chicago it’s a little bit different; few major museums are more reliant on admissions for revenue. Nine percent of AIC’s FY 2006 museum-based expenses were covered by admissions fees, down from 11.2 percent the year before. Yesterday the museum admitted to the Chicago Tribune that the increase was ‘needed’ because the AIC had to cover operating costs, which have risen (in part) because the AIC is opening a new addition this year. AIC director James Cuno effectively argued that because the museum has more space and higher operating expenses because of the addition, visitors — who didn’t green-light the AIC’s expansion — have to pay for it:
“We anticipated we would need to increase fees, that we hadn’t
increased them in five years,” museum director James Cuno told the [Chicago Park District] board. With the addition of a new 264,000-square-foot Modern Wing,
visitors will have about a 30 percent increase “of museum experience,”
Museum spokeswoman Erin Hogan said the $283 million Modern Wing “has
already been paid for, and the increase is not related to the current
economic climate … or about any shortfall or deficit. It is about
keeping up with operating costs, which all museums are faced with. It
is about not having an admissions increase in five years and about
keeping up with our peer institutions.”
(That last line is completely silly: There is no imperative for a museum to “keep up” with its peer institutions on admissions charges. Is it good for museums to keep up with their peers when it comes to access to collections? Yes. Collecting activity? Yup. Scholarship? You bet. But there’s a race-to-the-top on admissions costs? Ridiculous. The AIC should be trying to “keep up” with its peers in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Baltimore and Indianapolis, which have lowered — even eliminated — admission charges.)
When a museum increases admissions, there’s no reason to believe that the same number of people will visit, and that the museum will see a corresponding revenue bump. When MoMA hiked its admissions charge to $20, it was shocked — shocked! — to discover that not as many 20-to-30-year-olds were visiting the museum as MoMA had hoped. The museum promptly announced it was concerned about this and that it would communicate better with young people (read: market to), an approach that managed to totally miss the underlying, motivating issue. Lesson: Short-sighted admissions hikes that may do little to increase actual, meaningful revenue can cannibalize future audiences. [Image at top: Ed Ruscha, Oof, 1962-63. MoMA. [At bottom: Roy Lichtenstein, Sweet Dreams Baby!, 1965, FAMSF collection.]
Museums could do lots of things to avoid pricing out visitors. Trustees could give more. Foundations could give more. Museums could cut more staff. But the last thing they should do is raise admissions charges and inhibit public access to art at a time when we need it most.